Tastemaker: Staci Nugent, Keuka Lake Vineyards (New York)

One of my persona goals for this site in 2020 is to get back to publishing at least one “Tastemaker” profile every month. I realize that I’m getting this one in just under the wire – but the good news is that I have February’s ready to go next week too.

If you’re new to this series, the concept is simple. For several years now, the term “tastemaker” has been used in the wine world to describe writers, buyers and sommeliers instead of the people who are actually making the wines (and other libations) we love so much.

These stories are simply my small way of taking the term back and applying it to the real makers – like this month’s tastemaker, winemaker Staci Nugent from Keuka Lake Vineyards.

Every wine region has its star winemakers – those who seek the spotlight or who are the darlings of the local (or even national) media for any number of reasons. You see them in magazines. You see them at all of the speaking gigs.

Then there are winemakers like Staci. She does some of those things, but she and her wines still somehow fly under the radar. Make no mistake, however, Staci is making some of the best wines on the East Coast. I’m particularly fond of her rieslings and vignoles (yes, I said vignoles).

Like a perhaps surprising number of winemakers, she didn’t plan a career in winemaking until after she had finished her undergraduate education. Read on to learn more about her unique path to wine.

Staci Nugent, Keuka Lake Vineyards

Location: Keuka Lake Vineyards in Hammondsport, NY

Title: Winemaker

Before I Became a Winemaker: I’ve spent time in the biotech industry of Silicon Valley working with gene microarrays, and then, more recently at Cornell University, I conducted research studying gene expression in salmonella in the laboratory of Craig Altier.

I’ve also traveled around the world of wine, with internships at Ornellaia in Tuscany, Hardy’s Tintara in South Australia, and Williams Selyem in Sonoma. In the Finger Lakes, I worked at Dr. Frank’s and Lamoreaux Landing before landing at Keuka Lake Vineyards. There have been other jobs, too, like driving taxi and making cheese.

How I Ended Up Where I am Today: I started my wine career as a senior at Cornell University, where I took the “Introduction to Wines” course and from that point on, wine has been a part of my life.

When I first moved out to California for graduate school in genetics, I didn’t have a car and I would literally travel by bus, train, and boat to visit wine regions. Eventually, I bought a car, and one day it broke down and I needed to get it towed and the guy who towed my car asked for my number, which eventually led to a date to go knee-boarding on a man-made lake near Gilroy, California, but my girlfriend (along for safety reasons) and I got lost on the way and so we stopped at a winery for directions (and tasting) and I met the winemaker who asked me if I wanted a weekend job pouring wine in the tasting room, which I accepted.

The winery was Thomas Kruse winery, and my experience there convinced me to switch careers and attend UC Davis for a master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology. The rest follows naturally, more or less.

What I’m Drinking Right Now: This past weekend I went to Mijos in Marathon, NY to play table shuffleboard with a friend. I never acquired a taste for beer, and so at the bar, I ordered a glass of wine at the exact same time that I realized this was an establishment where it was best to stick with whiskey.

I ended up with a pint glass of box wine Pinot. It suited the afternoon and it was better with ice.

The First Bottle of Wine I Remember Drinking: It was a bottle of Hermann J. Weimer Semi-Dry Riesling, the first semester of my senior year at Cornell, and I shared it with my best friend, Alexi, in our apartment on West Campus. The vintage was most likely 1993 or 1994.

Alexi took the “Introduction to Wines” class a semester before I did, and the Wiemer’s were her favorites. I didn’t have my wine vocabulary then. I remember enjoying the taste, and that it was not too expensive, and that we could readily find it in Collegetown. Where, as I recall, we found it practically every weekend.

My Winemaking Style: I like to respect the fruit and not intervene too much. I’ll add yeast, and a small amount of nutrients to keep the yeast fermenting, and then some sulfur dioxide to prevent unwanted microbial growth. Otherwise, I like to let the quirks of the variety and vintage shine through.

Some winemakers want to smooth out the rough spots, but its those variations that I find interesting about wines. Of course, you need to be able to work with high-quality fruit in order to follow a more hands-off approach. I get to do that at Keuka Lake Vineyards.

My Mentors — Wine and Otherwise: I worked for many years with Thomas Kruse at his eponymous winery in California, first in the tasting room, then assisting in the cellar. His intelligent and outspoken, yet laid-back approach, to making and selling wine inspired my career change.

When I moved to the Finger Lakes, my first job was at Dr. Konstantin Frank’s and I feel fortunate to have overlapped for 10 months with winemaker Morten Halgren. Morten possesses a stunning depth of wine knowledge, from the science to the practical, and working with him was its own crash course in cool-climate winemaking.

The Music Playing in the Cellar Right Now: My assistant winemaker, Beth Schomp, controls the tunes and favorites she plays are The Black Keys, King Princess, Arctic Monkeys, and The 1975.

My Favorite Thing About the Finger Lakes Wine Industry: All my friends in the wine industry, how we collaborate and go bowling and have wine dinners.

What I Wish Was Different About Finger Lakes Wine: I appreciate that it’s the depth and size of the lakes that allow us to grow grapes in upstate New York, but man are they are a pain to drive around.

On a Random Thursday Evening, You’ll Find Me Drinking: Tap water. On a random Thursday night, I’m very likely to be home with my kid playing with LEGOs.

My Last Meal on Earth:  A pizza with anchovies and arugula, from Italy, with a bottle of Chianti. 

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